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[Kim Myong-sik] Pandemic provides excuse for return to nuclear energy

Former Korea Exchange Chairman Hong In-kie devoted his life after public service to research on international energy issues. While teaching at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Seoul Campus, he joined the crusade to save the nuclear energy industry in this country as the new government chose to depart from the promising sector in the stretch of its leftist ideology.

During the 2017 presidential election following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, liberal candidate Moon Jae-in proposed the phasing out of nuclear power generation as one of his major campaign pledges. No sooner had he been elected with 41 percent support in a three-horse race than he began taking steps to realize the rather preposterous ambition of turning South Korea into a nuclear-free zone in energy.

There was no open process of reviewing the national energy plan, which had been established and implemented by past administrations over nearly a half century since Korea’s first Kori No. 1 nuclear power plant was built in the early 1970s. The new power holders, asserting that election victory meant people’s approval of all their campaign promises, had a handful of environmental activists direct the 180-degree reversal.

Service lives of the existing 25 reactors shall not be extended, plans for new nuclear power plants have been scrapped and, most absurdly, the Sin Kori Nos. 5 and 6 projects -- which were already 30 percent complete -- will be dismantled. Strong objections from diverse civil quarters forced the government to continue construction of the two Sin Kori plants.

Over the past three years, people’s fears have grown about discarding the cleanest and cheapest kind of energy, which has allowed them lavish consumption of power at home and at work. As was anticipated, the national power monopoly business showed huge deficits in 2019 for the first time after many years of profitable operations.

Despairing energy experts are giving lectures at public and private functions to let people know how foolish it is for their government to abandon an industrial area in which this country has secured a lucrative global market with advanced technology. They argue that, as COVID-19 tramples on the world economy, Korea should grab all opportunities to keep the economy going. One sure way is nuclear energy.

In a recent presentation for senior members of a Christian community in southern Seoul, Hong made the following points, quoting a variety of data from the World Nuclear Association and other sources:

-- The US has extended the maximum operation period of its nuclear reactors from 60 years (already extended from 40 years) to 80 years and is trying to recover its global leadership in the nuclear energy industry. On the other hand, Korea is preparing to close down Wolseong 1 reactor in 2022 after operating for only 40 years. Six reactors in Korea, aged no more than 40 years, will be decommissioned by 2025.

-- A total of 444 nuclear reactors are in operation across the world, 52 under construction, 111 on the drawing board for completion before 2030, and 330 more are under feasibility study by national governments. Russia’s national nuclear reactor builder Rosatom alone has taken orders for 36 facilities in 12 countries with total contracts amounting to $133.5 billion for the next 10 years.

-- In 2019, the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. was approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its APR 1400 design for the next generation nuclear power plant, paving the way for partnerships with American firms. The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency has analyzed that Korea has a big price advantage over US and European firms in the area of nuclear plant renewal.

-- Korea plans to reduce dependence on nuclear power from 25.9 percent of total energy needs in 2020 to 9.9 percent in 2034, when coal, liquefied natural gas and renewable energy are supposed to provide for the rest. A government working group, however, foresees that it would be hard even to pull the rate down by 3 percentage points to below 23 percent by the target year.

-- President Moon would still push overseas sales of the Korean brand nuclear power plants on the strength of cost competitiveness and top-level technologies. But who will be willing to place orders on builders from a country that is dismantling its own reactors?

Hong, who once ran Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, says that no senior official he has met in the present government has confidently explained how the important decision was made to end nuclear energy in Korea. “Maybe it’s true that the president was just so tremendously shocked by the ‘Pandora’ movie,” he quipped. The 2016 film showed tragic scenes in the Busan-Ulsan area near Moon’s hometown in a Korean version of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

The government has arranged a special 1 trillion won ($836 million) loan to the Doosan Group, whose heavy machinery division is the main provider of components for nuclear power plants, to keep it from bankruptcy, but hundreds of its subcontractors and parts suppliers with world-class technologies are about to go under.

President Moon should accept that the future of nuclear energy in Korea is not a matter of choice by power holders but is something that requires national consensus formulated through exhaustive public debates. Many will praise his valor if he decides to review the current energy policy.

The review process should start with a debate on the pros and cons with interest groups and academic experts. The president should then propose a bill to the National Assembly to conduct a vote on a choice between a nuclear energy phase-out and a return to the original energy program. The result of the national vote, if held, should be reflected on the current (3rd) National Energy Basic Plan.

Before the national vote, the Board of Audit and Inspection has to report to the Assembly on any dereliction it found in Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power upon its 2018 decision to shut down the Wolseong No. 1 plant. The KHNP board is widely suspected of taking political action guided by the company’s new CEO.

Hong concluded his narrative with emphasis that Korea needs first to exclude political influence in deciding what kind of energy its citizens and industry should use if it wants to keep its place in the advanced rank of the world community. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.

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